Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Guest Post by Narayan: More on Madras, Elihu Yale, Hiram Bingham

I have been blogging lightly this month, mainly at Sepia Mutiny, while trying to finish a draft of my monograph on Mira Nair. My friend Narayan contacted me after a post a few weeks ago regarding Vinay Lal's "The Other Indians," and I suggested he consider writing up a guest post. The following is that post.

Guest Post by narayan

I, Eli & Hi

Madraspatnam / Medras / Chennai

Phonetics and orthography were at odds when the British named the city lately called Chennai. In 1639, factors of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) trying to get a foothold on the South-Eastern coast of India, the Coromandel, leased land from the local Nayaks at Madraspatnam, a name of dubious origins. S. Muthiah, the popular-historian of Chennai, in his admirable and informative book "Madras Rediscovered”, says that it was by all accounts "a God forsaken place … a narrow protected peninsula [sic], but a site without a safe landing place". Francis Day, the junior factor, who was "a hard-drinking, enthusiastic gambler and lusty womaniser", finalized the deal, justifying his choice with the report that the hinterland offered "excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 percent than anywhere else”. Plus ça change! Muthiah credits the senior factor, Andrew Cogan, with "encouraging the boisterous Day, making the first official landing, building the first fortified factory which was to grow into Fort St. George, and colonizing the place – the result of which industry is Madras today". Neither Cogan and Day, nor their Indian aides, Thimmappa and Nagabattan, are memorialized anywhere in the city.

My 1980 trip to Medras (which native ever pronounced it otherwise?) was doomed from the start, a favor to a well-meaning uncle. I spent the morning on the verandah of a mansion, stretching out polite conversation with a taciturn woman, a scientist with a PhD from Europe, past marriageable age like myself. She too had a well-meaning uncle as I soon surmised. I had to catch a bus to Pondy in four hours and was determined to wait it out. Watching the sly antics of a chhipkali in the bushes outside helped. There was a brief interview with the ageing father, then the special lunch for the prospective son-in-law. She insisted on accompanying me to the bus station in their chauffeured Ambassador with cloth covered seats. In her relief at my departure she became voluble, pointing out landmarks to me as we skirted Marina Beach, the one place I remembered from occasional family trips in childhood. At one point she pointed to a large brick structure and said, "And that’s Yale’s Ice House". Seconds later I reacted, "What do you mean – Yale?" "You know, Yale – from the university. He was Governor here."

Kafka would have wept at the struggle at the bus station just to buy a ticket; he would have soiled his pants on the bus ride back from Pondy. Understandably, I forgot all about the Medras fiasco until I was safely back in Boston. Months later, while browsing through the stacks at the public library, I came upon Hiram Bingham’s 1939 book "Elihu Yale - The American Nabob of Queen Square". Excuse me? Shouldn’t that be "Welsh Nabob of Medras"? After a prefatory nod to Kipling, a man who had never ventured south of the Vindhyas, Bingham begins : "Before the War it was exciting to go and find behind the ranges of the Andes the white temples of Machu Picchu and the palace of the last of the Incas." More about this later.


Elihu Yale’s father David, unmarried at twenty-three, emigrated from Wales to Boston, with his mother Anne, two siblings, his stepfather Theophilus Eaton, and two Eaton children. Shortly after, they moved to the new settlement of New Haven, then back to Boston after six years of domestic and social instability. David married at thirty and engaged in trade, but chafing at the theocratic rule of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to try his luck in Cromwell’s England. Elihu, David’s second child, was three in 1652 when he left Boston; he never set foot in America again. David succeeded in trade and became a man of property. He used his influence to get Elihu a berth in the HEIC as a Writer, paying a bond of £500 for the privilege.

When he set foot in Fort St. George in June 1672 after a six month voyage from England, Elihu was twenty three and at the bottom rung of the company. By the time he left India in February 1699 he had become Governor of the colony, only to be recalled under a cloud of suspicion. The story of the intervening years is Bingham’s to tell; it would be foolish of me to attempt a précis here. Rushdie and Swift together could not have conjured up the Munchausenesque events, intrigue, and personalities that inhabit the two hundred pages of Bingham’s book that detail Elihu’s twenty-seven year tenure in India.

In an article in The Hindu, Yale University student Ajay Gandhi summarizes Elihu’s Governorship adequately :

"As governor of Fort St. George, Yale purchased territory for private purposes with East India Company funds, including a fort at Tevnapatam (present-day Cuddalore). He imposed steep taxation towards the upkeep of the colonial garrison and town. His punitive measures against Indians who defaulted included threats of property confiscation and forced exile. This spurred various Indian revolts, which were ruthlessly quelled by Company soldiers. Yale was also notorious for arresting and trying Indians on his own private authority, including the hanging of a stable boy who had absconded with a Company horse.

“More audaciously, Yale amassed a private fortune through secret contracts with Madras merchants, against the East India Company's directives. This imperial plunder, which enabled his patronage of the American university, occurred through his monopolisation of traders and castes in the textiles and jewel trade. By 1692, Elihu Yale's repeated flouting of East India Company regulations, and growing embarrassment at his illegal profiteering resulted in his being relieved of the post of governor.”

Some blame for the first half of this assessment may be ascribed to the robber-baron ruthlessness of Sir Josiah Child, then head of the HEIC, but the second half rings entirely true.

Even after his return to England, Elihu continued in the profitable and possibly illegal import business in which he was enabled by his equally culpable successor as Governor, Thomas Pitt. The story of his donation to the Connecticut Collegiate School starts eighteen years into this prosperous retirement. The lobbyists for the donation are acknowledged to be Cotton Mather, the famous Bostonian of many parts, Jeremy Dummer, the equally accomplished and erudite London Agent for the Bay Colony, and Gen. Francis Nicholson, the militant and religious erstwhile Governor of Maryland. Why Elihu decided to favor their suit instead of some college in Oxford has to be a matter for conjecture, since New Haven was a place of regrettable history and unhappiness for the Yale-Eaton family. Mather and Dummer must have been uncommonly persuasive. Elihu’s son by his wife Katherine had died at four in Fort St. George; Charles, his son by his mistress Hieronima de Paivia died in Cape Town at the age of twenty-one en-route to England in 1712. Having no male heir, Elihu had considered taking the son of a Connecticut cousin under his wing. An ardent social climber, he had become a donor of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), and had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). He might plausibly have been trying to make his peace with God in his waning years.

The first donation was a gift of thirty-two books, among them a copy of ‘Principia’ gifted by fellow FRS, Isaac Newton, and an Armenian Dictionary, which might have found more use in a Medras library. Other members of the SPG contributed in kind. Harvard at the time was beginning to harbor religious dissenters, and there was friction between the college and Rev. Mather on that score. Nor did the government of Massachusetts want to encourage missionaries from the Church of England. The funding of a college in New Haven that might offset radical trends in Boston was an ideal project to be exploited by the SPG.

Mather’s 1718 letter to Yale is characterized by Bingham as a historic document.

“Ingeniously worded, adroitly suggesting both spiritual and worldly advantage to a possible patron who had lost his two sons, he believed it planted a seed which bore important fruit.”

Bingham follows this with several excerpts and his own commentary. An opening sentence of the letter may resonate with Indian-Americans :

“There are those in these parts of western India, who have had the satisfaction to know something of what you have done and gained in the eastern, and they take delight in the story.”

The italics are probably Bingham’s, but let me say this – WOW! Then there is this :

“Sir, though you have your felicities in your family, which I pray God continue and multiply, yet certainly, if what is forming in New Haven might wear the name YALE COLLEGE, it would be better than a name of sons and daughters. And your munificence might easily obtain for you such a commemoration and perpetuation of your valuable name, which would be better than an Egyptian pyramid.”

Double WOW! Mather’s coup de grâce might well have resulted in a coup de foudre at the receiving end. The rest, as they say, is history - and we know how history gets written.


Enthusiasts of travel and exploration lore will recognize Hiram Bingham as the man who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. He was the third in a line of Hiram Binghams, born in Honolulu to a Protestant missionary whose father had also been a missionary in Hawaii. Phillips Academy, Yale, Berkeley, and Harvard feature in his academic résumé. He had worked as a chemist, a lecturer of history and politics, and a preceptor under Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. After his explorations in the Andes he went on to serve the state of Connecticut as Lt. Governor, Governor and Senator. In short, he was the quintessential WASP of impeccable credentials and accomplishments.

Those who care to follow up on the fine print may have read that he is in the process of being discredited in favor of prior claimants to that re-discovery dating back to the mid 1800s. His sponsors, Yale University and the National Geographic Society are being tarred with the same brush as the Government of Peru seeks to recover national treasures and antiquities taken from the Andes. His detractors may also note that he was censured by the US Senate for fiscal improprieties. Sound like anyone we know?

The Internet, which makes child’s work of the acquisition of such trivia, was not around when I started on my personal quest for Elihu in the 80’s. My copy of Bingham’s biography retains a bill for $58 from an antiquarian book dealer in New York City in 1990; it was a Christmas gift to myself. I cannot claim to have read the book from cover to cover – there’s too much there for a casual history buff to absorb. Readers of this article who have read the book more carefully will be justified if they disagree with some of my unguarded criticisms of it. The first few times I delved into it I had vague intentions of writing a novel about Elihu’s times in India. The notion had a long gestation, the pregnancy proved ectopic, and while the act of procreation had been pleasurable, post-partum depression set in. I packed the book away for many years.

I had and still maintain great admiration for Bingham. His research on Elihu was, for his time, a monumental effort – would that I had his tenacity and endurance. My recent disaffections come out of a maturation of feelings about history, starting with a chance encounter with a collection of essays on subaltern history. One essay recounted an incident in British India where the Army was called in to quell a riot by farmers, resulting in several deaths by shooting. It was a minor event, no Jallianwala Bagh, but, based on their research, the authors went on to draw an alternative picture of the incident that was totally at odds with the contemporary accounts favored by the Raj. Over the years a fanatical skepticism has taken root in me. It is a skepticism not just of history as written by the victors, but also directed at the motives of those who betray unreasoned and intemperate attitudes toward Western accounts of India.

It is patently clear that Bingham reached out for credible source material to unearth information about his subject. My first readings were uncritical, eager as I was to take in stories that I could never have imagined in the years we were fed pap in high school. In my schoolboy consciousness the Raj had its roots in the East India Company, and the story of the Company started with Clive in the mid XVIII Century. Indian history came from text-books and was to be taken on faith. I was approaching middle-age when I discovered that I could access contemporary accounts of travelers through the centuries. I had known only of Alberuni, Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo, Fa Xian, Xuan Zang when I found antiquarian books in the stacks and vaults of the Boston and Brookline public libraries. Till then I had never heard of Duarte Barbosa, Bernier, Tavernier, Manucci and a handful of other travelers to pre-colonial India, nor the volumes of Hakluyt Society where their narratives are enshrined. Even at second hand Bingham became a vital source to me.

In my latest reading of him though, I have found him less than reliable. His biography is really a history that might be found flawed by the norms of scholarship of today. To his credit he went to various archives in London; but why didn’t he go to India? The British would surely have welcomed and paid him for his whitewash, as they did his compatriot and contemporary, the agent provocateur Katherine Mayo. He could have sought out Shafa’at Ahmad Khan, whose book, “Sources for the History of British India in the XVII Century”, kick-started Bingham’s own quest for Elihu. Undoubtedly, he would have found much material in India to augment, confirm and correlate with what he found in London. He might have gotten a feel of the country, experienced, even at arm’s length, life in the towns and villages that feature in his story. Could he not even have consulted a British map of India and provided a glossary of place names? I pored over two maps and couldn’t identify a third of the places he mentions in the arbitrary and un-phonetical spellings he merely copied off antique records. I could find on my maps no place names in the Coromandel littoral remotely approximating Conimeed, Brontispatinam, Yencatanipeets, Edelumburoo, Arramimpetts, Cheratunepolle, Jekeery, Maimra - while most of the name endings sound familiarly Tamil or Telugu, the names might as well be for villages in Brobdingnag.

Bingham thanks many people for help rendered in his research; there is not one Indian name among them. I am quite sure that there were accomplished Indians reading history in Oxbridge in the 30s; what concerns me is the thought that Bingham would not have cared to consult them. Often enough in his text he makes snide remarks about Indians of his own accord that would have been unacceptable from scholars of his day. They are gratuitous solecisms that would be branded racist today. To an Indian eye they jump off the page. One might overlook this in an Elihu, but it is unforgivable coming from Bingham. Well before his time English historians had published a trove of historical research on India. While he lists several exemplars in his bibliography it is apparent that Bingham’s reading was selective. He mentions Aurangzeb and Shivaji, but couldn’t care less about the politics of the region. Rajas, Nayaks, Poligars, Muslims, Hindus, Moghuls, Marathas make no difference to him, as though social taxonomy and administrative hierarchy were gifts the white man bore to the natives. The reader is left to fend for himself in unraveling the Byzantine political situation on the ground (India owes nothing to Byzantium in this sense).

Lastly, what do we learn about Elihu from Bingham? My latest reading informs me that the book is blatant hagiography. Much is made of small favors that Elihu extended to individuals in need and distress. On the other hand, at the slightest hint of wrongdoing on his subject’s part, the author serves up apologia as commentary, presenting convoluted and hypothetical alternative explanations. He gives credible arguments to contest the accusation of Elihu having strung up a groom for going AWOL, but my skepticism kicks in because of the numerous instances of such favorable analyses. Bingham’s constant theme is that Elihu could do no wrong, and all his detractors had an axe to grind. Besides lacking the wit to handle this quandary in a subtle way, he does not seem to know that readers are willing to empathize with deeply flawed humans when the writer coaxes them in that direction. He fails to pursue the London proceedings against Elihu in a systematic way, preferring instead to dwell on his ascent in society and on details of his wealth. Clearly, he is the wrong man to have tackled this subject. As a descendant of Protestant missionaries, a graduate of Yale, and recipient of patronage from the university, how could he possibly make a balanced assessment of the man? Then again, faced with the looming influence of the university and the Ivy-WASP establishment, who can?


This has been a case study in the failures of historiography. I doubt that anyone will make another attempt at researching and writing a serious and balanced history of Elihu Yale and his times. Who would care to fund such a project about a man who has been a minor myth for centuries already? The question is rhetorical – the answer unacceptable.

A Hakluyt Society volume of 1889 included a biographical addendum that conflated Elihu’s wife with his mistress. The historian at fault, John Anderson, published a correction elsewhere and accepted full blame for the blunder. In 1984 an eminent biographer of Mather wrote this of Elihu :

“...a London diamond merchant. ... As a young man Yale had emigrated to Madras, India, where he made a fortune. Becoming President of the East India Company, he had lived protected by several hundred guards carried on an ostrich-fan-shaded palanquin.”

Where does Kenneth Silverman get his stuff? Had he said ‘peacock’ I might have given him a B-minus. That the Yale affair gets three paragraphs in a Mather biography merits a C-minus. Instead, he got a Pulitzer Prize for his scholarship, so I don’t expect a corrigendum from him – an I grade perhaps?

The groom hanging incident is well on its way to becoming an important event in Elihu’s life. Bingham’s chapter on the case gives a creditable historian’s account. Conversely, I find Gandhi’s gratuitous mention of it reprehensible for the implied lie which is bound to be perpetuated through easy access over the Internet. The inference to be drawn from Gandhi’s compound sentence is that the “stable boy” was Indian. Not true! From Bingham’s research we know that the unfortunate fellow, Charles Cross, was English, a Company soldier who had been demoted to stable duty as punishment for theft. Upon their arrest all parties involved were duly court-martialed by the Governing Council. So much for Gandhi’s oxymoronic “private authority”! Cross was hanged, presumably for being recidivist, his companion, George Isaac, was shot for desertion, three confederates were transported to Sumatra, and two others made to “runne the Gantlett”. Bingham surmises that Elihu’s offence here lies in the severity of the sentences in light of the promise of mercy he had made to the Raja of Kanchipuram who had delivered up the two runaways. Indian readers of Gandhi’s polemic might not be disturbed by the facts Bingham unearthed; it is far more convenient to be outraged by the arbitrary hanging of an Indian stable boy.

It is a sign of our Internet obsessed times that bad information passes for the real thing, with no distinction made between the verifiable and apocrypha, between the plausible and fantasy. Everyone knows the story of the naming of the university and each wants to embellish it with his own two cents worth, thereby compounding the mess. It’s the whispering game of cyberspace. He was Governor of Fort St. George – no, the President of Madras – no, Director of the Company. The college was named for him – no, only a building – no, the name was assumed ten years later – no, he founded the university. He had one mistress – no, two, possibly more; one son by her – no, five by them. He was a Second on the Council – no, the Second Governor of Madras. He donated a bale of cloths – no, a box of precious textiles; fifty-seven books – no, hundreds; worth £567 – no, more than £800. Every article on the Internet has some or all of it wrong, or simply made up from whole cloth - sad to say that the authors might have actually benefited from reading Bingham’s hagiography.

Even Muthiah doesn’t seem to know the book even though his own history has as much to say of Yale as of Clive. However, thanks to Muthiah I now know something about the Ice House. This old government building was leased out and converted to an ice storage facility in 1845, the year Frederic Tudor of Boston began shipping ice from Boston to Madras, to be sold for an-anna-and-a-pice the pound. It was harvested at Walden Pond, a process described by Thoreau who felt compelled to add :

“The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well … The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges...”

Distant as the Ganges is from Medras and Bombay, I doubt that Thoreau cared a whit for Indian geography, preferring instead the facile fantasy.

And since we are back on Indian soil, who am I to fault the somber lady scientist for misinforming me about a building off the beach that was established as an Ice House a century and a half after Yale’s stay in Medras? She will never know how her casual remark has affected me. I sincerely hope she married well!

Guest Post by narayan


Pipa said...

Yale's Madras connection is therebut NEVER have it heard the Ice House referred to as Yale's Ice House!

Medyumlar said...

Yale's Madras connection is therebut NEVER have it heard the Ice House referred to as Yale's Ice House!

John Louis Lassen Perry said...

Very interesting. I've been studying the history of the early activities of the various East India Companies and I'm often struck by how little known or understood they are by most Westerners, though it could be argued that they played a pivotal role in the development of the modern global corporate environment and in the establishment of Western hegemony. There is much misinformation and even myth regarding them, as you point out there is of Yale himself, who was a significant character in the story. It is interesting to see an Indian perspective on some of this stuff. I shall have to read some of S.Murths's work on the subject. I have yet to read Bingham. I shall do so with your criticism in mind.